Gregory Alan Isakov and Rainer Maria Rilke on the Quiet Things of Life

“ Oh blessed rage for order…The maker’s rage to order words of the sea…”  

~ Wallace Stevens

One of Augustine of Hippo’s ways of understanding the human heart sounds paradoxical at first: a man can walk around the earth, but he cannot ever circumscribe his own heart. Rather than debate whether or not this is the case, I am going to take this as a given for the duration of this essay. Man exists in a liminal space, containing an infinitude within yet existing in an infinite universe. How can one sift through these inexhaustible depths of themselves in order to best interact with the infinite world? Prior to that, how can we even begin to understand this at all? Both singer-songwriter Gregory Alan Isakov and German poet Rainer Maria Rilke have a response. It lies within the realms of solitude, silence, and contemplation. Most importantly, it is a paradoxically practical response. As much as they create their art, the way they approach their art creates them. I propose that we, as listeners and readers, should learn how to live in the world the way these artists did and do. By doing so, we come to take notice of ourselves and of our origins – doing so is of utmost importance. 

In his work The Ark of Speech, French phenomenologist and philosopher Jean-Louis Chrétien once said that “the highest intimacy with God is expressed in words that we do not invent, but that, rather, invent us, in that they find us and discover us where we were without knowing it.” As an artist shapes a work of art, they are simultaneously being shaped by the act of creation itself. This relationship transcends the art and the artist, having a ripple effect beyond the art and artist, including, for example, one who bears witness to the art. Reading and listening to Rilke and Isakov, we can not only bear witness to this paradoxical act of creation, but also participate in it ourselves. The art-artist-witness trichotomy is layered, and I am not particularly interested in discussing it at length here. All I will say is what Chrétien says in Hand to Hand: Listening to a Work of Art: “The study of the procedures of human art can…constitute a path toward the divine art that is at its foundation” (my emphasis). The best way to approach these two artists is to approach what they are approaching: the mystery of existence. Isakov once said that he’s “writing this kind of living thing; you have a relationship with it.” Rilke once said that “Works of art are of an infinite loneliness…only love can grasp and hold and be just toward them” The relationship they have with their art is what attentive readers and listeners are most privy to, and it is a rare artist indeed that can talk about their craft as brilliantly as they can actually perform it. 

“Well it’s 3 a.m. again, like it always seems to be,” sings Gregory Alan Isakov in his song “3 a.m.”, which he wrote on the side of a country road at 3 a.m. A native South African raised in Philadelphia, Gregory Alan Isakov currently lives, works a farm, and writes music in Colorado. When asked about the genre of music he makes as he was standing in an elevator with his band, he said: “Oh, like, sad songs about space” with characteristic brevity and wit. Songs like “Words,” “Second Chances,” and “Honey, It’s Alright” are about love: sometimes unrequited, sometimes difficult, always deep. In “Honey, It’s Alright,” he sings “honey, it’s alright, it’s alright to be alone / honey, it’s alright, to be amongst the rubble and stone.” He takes almost for granted that the world we live in is one of “rubble and stone.” Yet in “Second Chances,” Isakov sings “Me, I’m mumbling in the kitchen for the sun to pay up / lonely is a ring on a cold coffee cup /I’m some sick hound digging for bones / if it weren’t for second chances, we’d all be alone.” We cannot do anything but dig for bones in this world of “rubble and stone,” but “second chances” save us from that. He never says what kind of second chances they are, nor where they originate, but he knows we have them. I doubt Isakov himself knows these things. He said once that his songs “have a mind of their own,” and that he is “just following them along.” His seven albums are both unable to be singularly defined in a genre and also entirely borne out of solitude and wonder. In interviews, he is soft-spoken and humble, and he seemingly prefers to talk about poetry and gardening than his own music. When singing, he almost always seems to be lost in the world of his song, content with following along and witnessing the world that he himself created and is creating again. 

His greatest songs, like “The Stable Song,” “The Universe”, and “Time Will Tell,” are written for the lonely ones, which means all of us to some extent. In “The Universe,” Isakov sings “and the Universe, she’s whispering so softly I can hear all the croaking insects, all the taxicabs, all the bum’s spent change all the boys playing ball in the alleyways / they’re just folds in her dress.” To be lonely in this world is not to be alone. On the contrary, it is to be entirely present in the world, aware of the depth of what is around us, the impression it leaves on one who looks closely, and one’s daily existence in the “folds in [the] dress” of the universe. He and Rilke are much like Gerard Manley Hopkins in this way. In writing music, Isakov apprehends the world in such a way that he respects its limitlessness. His songs quietly embody the liminal space between the eternity within himself and the eternity of the universe, leaving one to wonder if they are really that different in the first place. Some notion of God exists in his songs as well. In “3 a.m.” he sings “God’s been living in that ocean, sending us all the big waves / and i wish i was a sailor so i could know just how to trust, / maybe i could bring some grace back home to the dryland for all of us.” This lovely seafaring metaphor for God and how to be on the sea, tumultuous as it may be, has forced me personally to sit back and ruminate on the sea I am in, how I trust or do not trust the boat or the sender of the waves, and what my “dryland” even is. Isakov wants to know what I think about this world, my world. It is an invitation many artists today do not think to write, much less incorporate into their art. 

She was the single artificer of the world 

In which she sang. And when she sang, the sea, 

Whatever self it had, became the self 

That was her song, for she was the maker. Then we, 

As we beheld her striding there alone, 

Knew that there never was a world for her 

Except the one she sang and, singing, made. 

~ Wallace Stevens

Rainer Maria Rilke once recommended with particular emphasis in a letter to a young poet that “Everything must be carried to term before it is born.” Each experience, even the smallest emotions and feelings, are all tested against the inner castle of our heart. They call over the walls to one’s most inner being, the un-circumscribable heart St. Augustine mentioned earlier, and one must learn how to respond. More appropriately, we must learn what to do when we realize that we have always been responding. Each individual person must learn for themselves how to respond well. By letting those emotions and feelings be what they are and not immediately being swayed by any of them, one develops what John Keats called “negative capability,” which he understood as the virtue to stand without unbearable tension between opposing poles. To be an artist, according to Rilke, one must have this ability to somehow stand in the middle of impossibilities: “To let each impression come to completion wholly in itself, in the dark, in the inexpressible, the unconscious, and to await with deep humility and patience the birth-hour of a new clarity: this alone is to live as an artist.” One can live as an artist with only two things: an expectation of what is to come and a knowledge and certainty with what is. Even more than that, it is our duty, Rilke says, to take everything seriously: “Difficult things are what we were set to do, almost everything serious is difficult, and everything is serious.” 

In his poem “Self-Portrait From The Year 1906,” the same year the letter was written, Rilke sees something very old and something very new in his face: 

“This [face], as coherence, only just divined; 

never, as yet, in suffering or elation 

collected for some lasting culmination; 

as if from far, though, with stray things, creation 

of something real and serious were designed.” 

What he sees in his face now is a “real and serious” design that he knows he has only just begun to understand. Even in time, either in “suffering or elation,” he will never fully understand his own face. Rilke does not hope for a whole understanding of that design, for he knows it is an impossible understanding to attain. For we can only see in a mirror dimly now, and who knows what seeing face-to-face will truly be like (1 Cor 13:12). He hopes for the ability to continually question the changes in his face as he ages, much like Isakov hopes for the ability to express the fullness of his experience of reality in song rather than hoping for the understanding of reality itself. 

In “Going Blind,” Rilke writes about a blind woman who takes her time with what is in front of her: a cup of tea, a path, a majestic flight. Initially, Rilke writes with a clear vision but a clouded judgement: “it had almost hurt to see” how different even her smile was. Rilke cannot imagine what the blind see without sight; he only sees what is not there, not what is. As she walks behind a group of friends, Rilke notices something different, saying that “she needed time, / as though some long ascent were not yet by.” Her walking, as blind as it is, is a climbing towards something. Rilke ends this meditation with this: “and yet: as though, when she had ceased to climb, / she would no longer merely walk, but fly.” Rilke understands how her blindness aids her in seeing more truly the path in front of her. This poem is Rilke’s own ascent to clearer sight. In letting this “feeling come to completion wholly in itself,” Rilke gives himself room to be changed by the feeling into something better than he was before. 

This whole project is a “blessed rage for order,” as Wallace Stevens once said. The artist has a dependence on the world, in which they create. They also have a dependence on God, from whom they have received the ability to create. The art itself always reflects the “ideas and harmonies of the intellectual world the artist contemplates,” to use another line from Chrétien. This essay does not really have a conclusion, nor does it have a clear direction for you, the reader. To live as an artist is to simply live with the clearest understanding of oneself in the quiet things of life. Ultimately, to do this well means this, in the words of Rilke: 

“A world will come over you, the happiness, the abundance, the incomprehensible immensity of a world. Live a while in these books, learn from them what seems to you worth learning, but above all love them. This love will be returned to you thousands upon thousands of times, whatever your life may become – it will, I am sure, go through the whole fabric of your being, as one of the most important threads among all the threads of your experiences, disappointments, and joys.”

Marcus Lotti is a senior studying English.

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